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Awkward as Planned: short-term pain for long-term Olympic Legacy?

Richard Layman linked to a recent post to a PriceWaterhouseCooper report on how Olympic or other mega-event legacy infrastructure can accelerate development by up to 30 years. He comments on how good planning is a big part of leveraging these opportunities into longer-term wins for the communities:

Much of the time, events or projects for that matter, are touted for their economic development power and prospects, and the result ends up being minimal.

It’s because there isn’t really a plan designed to leverage the event/project in ways that extend beyond the confines of the site.

Places that benefit from major events and the construction of infrastructure do so through robust planning in advance.

[…]  Development is heralded as bringing all kinds of benefits, but without specific programs in place to realize the benefits, it can take decades to see results.

It’s the difference between trickle down expectations and planning and creating the programs and infrastructure necessary to realized linked improvements.

He cites Vancouver’s Olympics as an exemplary case. I agree. My point in this post is that the transition between what is and what might or will be can be a challenging and a potentially lengthy process.

Background: Little Mountain – Riley Park

I grew up near Main Street in the Little Mountain – Riley Park area, around 28th Avenue, and went to school at General Wolfe Elementary. There’s something terribly functional about the particular arrangement of the neighbourhood. I’ve heard people chalk it up to its growth post-WWI, and though I haven’t had a chance to read about it in depth, its position from downtown and walkable feel would seem to out it as cut from the same cloth as other streetcar suburbs.

Main Street is (for being where I grew up) my prototypical walkable neighbourhood corridor, and it’s only gotten better since I first moved to the neighbourhood, and Canada, in 1989 (and even more so since we left for East Vancouver in 1996). It was previously known for its overabundance and clustering of antique furniture stores, which has subsided a bit in the last decade as the vintage and children’s consignment clothing shops, cafés, restaurants and the odd record store have settled in. Trever Boddy had a fantastic article about the difference between Main and Cambie a couple years back exploring how the varying atmospheres of Cambie and Main can be traced back to the land ownership trends and history of each respective streets — all the more appropriate for this point in my life, as I now live closer to Cambie Village as I do Little Mountain, but visit both with equal regularity. It’s an area rich with stories and close to people’s hearts, and you can feel it in the space. The recession has left its mark — the Pharmacy downsized and a couple spaces are empty, but it seems most things on the strip thrive.

The Olympic Legacy: Vancouver Olympic Centre at Hillcrest Park

The Olympics’ contribution to this neighbourhood is the Olympic Centre at Hillcrest Park, sandwiched in between Cambie and Main, between a diagonal chunk that cuts through from as far north as 27th avenue, down to 33rd Avenue. It makes a ton of sense from the Olympics angle — there was a curling centre there previously, near Nat Bailey Stadium. Along with the skating rink and Percy Norman pool at the Riley Park community centre across and slightly south of Hillcrest Park, it works as a “sporting megablock” for the Olympic legacy to be there.

One of my friends from high school works for the Vancouver Public Library and she told me that Hillcrest would also be opening a new library. The current library is on Main Street, sharing a storefront space with the Little Mountain Neighbourhood house just north of 25th Avenue. I have to say, I’m really torn by this — I think it’s fantastic that the Neighbourhood House will (I’m speculating) get an expanded space because it’s really quite minimal at the moment. And the new space will definitely a step up for the library facilities as well.

(A) Hillcrest Park, the location of the new library (closer to the stadium than the Google pin). (B) Main and 25th Ave, the major transit intersection. Note the outlines of buildings shown in grey, indicating the density of retail along Main Street all the way down to 33rd Ave (off the map).

Gah, my Walkable, Complete Neighbourhood!

Thinking about the urban design and transportation perspective of what is there now, however, the new location at Hillcrest suffers from a significant decrease in accessibility. The current library on Main Street is served by an articulated trolley bus that runs on a 10-minute headway and is only a block away from an east-west bus route. This makes dropping a book or a DVD off at the library, at most, 600 meters away from a trip to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and several banks!

The new Hillcrest Library location is much, much less well-connected. It is only accessible by the #33 bus, which has a 15 minute headway (12 during rush hour). It’s a roughly 300 meter walk from the nearest bus stop on Main Street, through three blocks of housing. It remains a reasonable walk away from the elementary school, but is less convenient for children who need to take the bus on Main Street, and has also moved farther away, south and west, from Tupper Secondary School (which, granted, has its own library and is at the bottom of a considerable hill away from Main Street). I’m not really open to the argument that a neighbourhood library is fine without good bus connections — seniors and people with accessibility needs do need to get to libraries too, after all.

What strikes me is that the sports complex and the resultant library were put in a location that’s a little off the street grid. The placement of the library there makes sense from a facilities management perspective given its relationship to the Olympics, but from an urban design perspective, I’m not so convinced when it comes to everyday pedestrian activity as it exists right now.

One thing that makes this slightly-less-bad is that this neighbourhood is set up really well for biking, and people definitely bike — to the farmer’s markets and baseball games at Nat Bailey, just next to the library. The bike share, when it materializes, will likely take the edge off the pain of getting from Main to the Library.

The subtle hand of Someday-Maybe…?

What I am open to is the idea that the area between Main Street and Ontario Street, between 30th and 33rd, will enliven over the years, as the intersection of 33rd Avenue and Main Street is the site of a planned new mixed-income, mixed-use housing/retail development. I imagine the plan is for the housing to have enough density to warrant an increase in frequency for the #33 bus, and to successfully create a secondary walkable cluster in the neighbourhood at Ontario and 33rd (where Ontario is also a north-south bike route) accessible by foot and bike from Main and 25th, the current locus of attention, and perhaps to a lesser degree, Main and 41st, another intersection of bus lines. Only time will tell whether they are successful in that work.

Got the goods; temporary awkwardness ensues

New libraries and new swimming pools and skating rinks don’t come cheap, so all-in-all, still a major win for a Vancouver. The plan will prove well-conceived only if the pieces — the transit, the housing, the pedestrian realm and retail to give reasons to walk off Main Street — are all able to come together. I think my skepticism is simply rooted in whether messing up something that currently, demonstrably works in the hope of creating something that won’t really work for at least another 5 years, is a worthwhile planning philosophy. It’s a shame the VPL couldn’t keep the Riley Park library open until the Little Mountain housing residents are actually there to properly use that facility.

Awkward for now. Facilities yay. All in the plan.

One Comment

  1. Adam Fitch

    Hey Karen. I just encountered your blog and I really enjoyed it. I especially appreciated your link to Trevor Boddy’s 2007 piece on Cambie and Main. Very insightful and prescient. It has stood the test of time amazingly well.

    Posted February 1, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

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